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Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination: The Untold Story of the Actors and Stagehands at Ford’s Theatre

Thomas A. Bogar, Regnery History

On the night of Abraham Lin­coln’s assassination, 46 actors, managers and stagehands  worked at Ford’s Theatre. In the  aftermath, those 46 were shocked,  saddened, suspected and, in several cases, imprisoned. Thomas Bogar’s  engrossing narrative chronicles the  largely unfamiliar story of the theatrical community and the assassination.

Lincoln had attended performances  at Ford’s many times prior to April  14, 1865. The theater’s reputation  as pro­secessionist did not seem to  trouble the president (though it did  some actors, including John Wilkes  Booth’s brother Edwin, who avoided it in favor of pro-­Union stages).  Owner John T. Ford was in Richmond  on that fateful night. His brother  Harry, who managed the theater, was  a good friend of Booth’s. Several others associated with the theater were avowed secessionists, and one actor had relatives in the CSA. There were  also plenty of ardent Unionists and  veterans among the theater’s employees, but on this night everyone was  regarded as a potential conspirator.

Bogar re­creates hour by hour the  events of that night’s performance  of Our American Cousin. Many of Ford’s employees were interrogated, but some were never even  interviewed, as the investigation  proceeded in haphazard fashion. Only Booth’s friend, stagehand Ned Spangler, was tried as a conspirator. Spangler, who had briefly held Booth’s  horse in the alley before heading back  inside, heard the shot and saw a man  he said he couldn’t identify run out. A carpenter testified at Spangler’s  trial that Ned slapped him and then  threatened him, saying, “Don’t say  which way he went.” No one else heard those words, but Spangler was  sentenced to six years of hard labor.

The other actors and stagehands  floated away on the stream of history,  but Bogar caught up to nearly all  of them. Actress Laura Keene, who  cradled the president’s bloody head in her lap, fed Washington for Cincinnati. John Dyott, who had been  on stage in Act Three, Scene Two  when Booth fired, played Polonius to  Edwin Booth’s Hamlet in New York in 1866. After accepting a government settlement for his theater, John  Ford became a wealthy impresario  elsewhere. Some, like doorman John  E. Buckingham, published accounts of  the evening; others preferred never  to speak of it again.

The last survivor was program boy  Joseph Hazelton, who was 11 years old in 1865. He died in 1936, a veteran of silent film shorts and radio shows.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.